Notes from Real People — Conversations with a Legit Standup & SNL Assistant

THE ALUMNI CONNECTION

This past weekend is the hallowed Johns Hopkins tradition of Alumni Weekend. Using the magic of email and bribery the Black and Blue Jay was able to get two LEGIT alumni to stop by and chat with the budding comedians on campus. Emphasis on the budding. Also emblematic of how un-comedic campus is — 8 people came.

BUT those who came were welcome to a font of knowledge. It was so cool!

THE PEOPLE

Dan and Luke

Standup/Writer/Actor/All Around Funny Guy: Dan Ahdoot!

SNL Writer’s Assistant: Luke Sand!

WHAT I LEARNED

1. MAKE STUFF

That was a point that Dan and Luke harped on religiously. We’re at a point in time where all it takes is an iPhone and some elbow grease to spit out an impressively put together product. If you want to write for the screen, get some friends together and make a short. If you want to be a standup, go to open mics and record your set. If you want to write for late night, slap your own show together. That’s how you get noticed.

2. BE YOURSELF

Right, how trite are these? But they’re cliche because it’s good advice. Be yourself here means that you should write what you know. Dan got his lit agent after he wrote a pilot based on his college experience. It won contests and generated heat. Why? Because only he could tell that story, and he told it well.

3. BE SHOCKING

This one may hit as a bit cheap, but another great point is that you can generate buzz by being totally out of the PC zone. There is a story about a FRIENDS script from over a decade ago called ‘The One Where Everyone Gets AIDS.’ It’s a fucking legend. Why are you hearing about it today? Because it was shocking. You don’t have to be a dick or even be inappropriate — you can just be fucking out there and still make a splash.

4. THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN LA AND NY

This one was surprising — “Don’t go to LA until you’re asked to.” This one may be more for standup. Apparently New York is just a crueler, trial-by-fire atmosphere, and struggling against the adversity of the audience is the only way to grow and really hit your peak. In LA comedy is often an event — you’ve gotta pick your tickets, print ’em, get all gussied up, drive out there, etc. New York will knock you down a peg, which will make you try harder. A bit of a bummer for me, as I’m LA-bound in a few weeks, but such is life!

What would you ask your comedy mentors?

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‘Writing a Masterpiece’ — My Experience Rewriting AIRPLANE! (pt. 1)

A WEEKEND PROJECT

As per usual, I was perusing Reddit this past week when I had a moment of inspiration. I’ve mentioned before the story (perhaps apocryphal) that Hunter S. Thompson rewrote the entirety of Great Gatsby, word for word, just to see what it felt like to write a masterpiece. When someone on Reddit mentioned doing the same for a screenplay, the idea stuck with me, and I turned it into my weekend project.

It ended up taking much, much longer.

Jammin’ in the AIRPLANE! cockpit

THE BEST SCRIPT EVER

As an aspiring comedy writer (which should be obvious since it’s plastered on top of every page of this blog), I went to my repository of favorite comedy scripts — AIRPLANE! was at the top of the list. I wasn’t able to find a pdf of the script, but I was able to find a copy entirely in HTML, which you can find here.

So now my mission was twofold — I would rewrite the script so that I could get the experience of crafting a masterpiece, as well as so I could have a nice, neat, clean, shareable PDF of the AIRPLANE! script, something I couldn’t find anywhere online.

But holy shit, is this a process.

HUNKER DOWN

Thus far I’ve put in about five hours of retyping effort, and have only made it through 30 of the 75 pages of the Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker script. One interesting note is that formatting was a tad different when it was written back in ’79, such as dialogue being given more page space per line. My retype of the script is at page 44, which means the final script will probably clock in at around ~110 pages.

WHAT I’VE LEARNED

A couple of things have jumped out at me.

  1. You’re really forced to examine the structural minutiae of the script. I know I spend a lot of my time worrying at the macro level, so it’s enlightening to notice exactly how ZAZ structured their interesting visual gags, or how often they cut away to show the exterior of the plane for emphasis.
  2. Everything is less sexy than in the movie. This one may seem minor, but it was big to me. The final product of AIRPLANE! is so hilarious, both linguistically and visually, but a lot of that doesn’t come through in the script. The dialogue is funny, yes, but the iconic delivery is what gave it such staying power. The visual gags in particular are harder to translate. This sort of thing works much better for writer/directors, who don’t need to translate their ideas as fully onto the script, since their vision is the final product anyhoo.

  3. I don’t feel much different…yet. As something to fill the time and feel productive, I’ve found this to be a good exercise, but as of yet I haven’t noticed any drastic change. I expect — like with most things — that doing something like this enough will basically result in creative osmosis that will start manifesting once you’re writing.

THE REST OF THE FLIGHT

I’ll keep updating as I continue to soldier through the script re-type. Hopefully I come across some more nuggets of wisdom to share. Worst case scenario, I’ll have hit a cool milestone, as well as have a PDF copy of AIRPLANE! that I’ll upload on here.

What script would you re-write?

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The Open Mic Diaries — Lessons from My First Experiences in Standup

The Bug

Whenever I start learning about something new, one phrase always pops up from the veterans: ‘catching the bug.’ Over the past couple of weeks I have found myself saying the same thing about standup. It’s fucking exhilarating. For 5 minutes or less, you’ve got control of a room. All eyeballs are on you, and occasionally-paying customers are relying on you to provide their entertainment for the evening. For me, it’s a newer facet of comedy. Here’s what I’ve learned. 

  1. Do It A Lot

This one is probably obvious. I haven’t gotten up as much as I’d like — only 4 times in the past month — but especially in these early stages I’ve noticed real improvements in my work. ‘Noob gains,’ to borrow a phrase from bodybuilders, are when you’re able to make significant leaps in skill because it’s so easy to eliminate your really shitty habits as you slide into your new role as comedian. 

  1. Record Your Set

This one can sometimes be hard to negotiate, but it’s always worthwhile. Whether you’re just recording audio with a phone placed on the stool, or you enlisted a friend or freelancer to record your set from the crowd, knowing what you do on stage is crucial. Like in any discipline, earnest reflection on past performance is a guaranteed way to make improvements. On that note…

  1. Make Notes on the Sets You Record

AKA actually listen to/watch them. It’s super easy to pull up a video, watch, laugh, make some mental notes, and move along. But don’t do that. Instead, get out a pen, or pull up a Word doc, and scribble down some actual notes on your performance. What went well, what went poorly, what to improve. In enough weeks/months/years it’ll be fun to look back and see what trivial things were bothering you early on (or what major things you missed).

  1. Bring Friends

Whether they’re comedians or not, creating a support structure is a great way to keep on traveling down a path you want to travel. Don’t overtax relationships bringing people to dive bars for open mic, but if you can find a core group who’s down to clown around with some comedy, it’s a great way to ensure your continued ability to get up on stage — and have a crowd. Plus, they can provide good feedback if they’re comedically minded. Just be ready to take their comments with a grain of salt if not!

  1. If All Else Fails, Start Your Own Night

I can’t speak for everywhere, but at least in a college town, there’s no shortages of bars. If you’re willing to put in the man hours to create and promote a night of comedy, they’ll be more than happy to accommodate a larger group of customers spending money on their food and drinks. If you’re a student group at a school, you could probably even get a subsidy to help put the damn thing on!

  1. Just Do It

Oh hey, that phrase again (Nike plz don’t sue). No one ever became a successful standup by watching specials on Netflix and thinking they’re funny. At the end of the day, you’ve gotta get up there, minute by minute, to develop your material and your skills. And if you think you suck, don’t worry. You’re in good company. So did every other comedian. Until they started playing in stadiums and starring in movies. 

What are your standup comedy tips?

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Monkey See, Monkey Do — Ape the Greats to Build Your Skills

REDDIT INSPIRATION

I recently saw a reddit post that really struck me. The user had talked about some of his issues in structuring screenplays, and he had a surprisingly simple yet surprisingly brilliant idea. He went through the Terminator script, beat by beat, and then used that exact structure as an outline for his own feature!

IF YOU’RE GONNA STEAL, STEAL BIG

Those words were said to me by a college writing professor, who proceeded to point out a bunch of similarities, even on the sentence level, of major works of literature in the English canon. When you’re famous enough, you get to call it an ‘homage.’ But for now, there’s nothing wrong with  looking at what works and making it your own. Why is that?

WRITING AS A CAREER REQUIRES OUTPUT

If you want to make money in this comedy writing game — and face it, who wouldn’t want to make a career out of this shit? — then what’s most important is output. My theory in pretty much every creative endeavor is that the cream rises to the top and the shit is forgotten. Exceedingly rare is the artist who can only churn out top-quality material, and even then, she probably has piles of unpublished papers from college or summer camp or a notebook she kept secret at her first job as a desk jockey , all of them crap on crap on crap, getting only slightly better as one nears the more recent end of the pile. 

As I’ve said before, if all first drafts are shit, you’re gonna need a lot of first drafts to make good shit. 

A RESOURCE

This is only for features, but here’s a great collection of beat sheets for some of the more notable movies of the past couple decades. (http://www.savethecat.com/beat-sheets-alpha). Want to write a timelessly comedic romantic dramedy? ‘Borrow’ the structure for THE APARTMENT, Billy Wilder’s Best Picture/Screenplay winner. 

It may not be the most original final product, but with one less thing to worry about, you can bet that your writing skills will improve as you work around a proven-successful structuring. You may even find yourself throwing away your original outline as the characters and your narrative begin to take form.

But as I always say —

Get out there and write!

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Class is Back at Community

ATTENTION GREENDALE

My favorite sitcom is back in force for a digitally distributed (and eleventh-hour resurrected) sixth season. That’s right, Community is back on the airwaves. Or fiberoptic cables, I suppose. Now released weekly on Yahoo! Screen, Community’s newest season has really seemed like a return to the form for TV’s pluckiest comedy. 

Here’s what we’ve got so far:

S6E1 – Ladders

Dean Pelton hires Francesca “Frankie” Dart (Paget Brewster) as a consultant to help improve Greendale, but her tactics create tension on campus.

S6E2 – Lawnmower Maintenance and Postnatal Care

Britta discovers that her parents have been helping her financially from behind the scenes, while the Dean becomes obsessed with an expensive virtual reality system and Jeff seeks out the inventor, Elroy Patashnik (Keith David), to get a refund.

S6E3 – Basic Crisis Room Decorum

Community’s 100th episode!

Annie finds out that Greendale once gave a bachelor’s degree to a dog and clashes with Jeff over how to deal with the news. Elsewhere, Britta has an embarrassing series of misadventures, Frankie and Elroy meet each other, Chang heads off-campus to make a dirty movie, and the Dean gets confused over texts from a Japanese kid.

MY THOUGHTS 

After a long and tumultuous trio of seasons (3, 4, 5) with the Peacock, Community has, for me at least, hit a very successful stride. With any sitcom, chemistry between the actors in key, and the new additions of Paget Brewster and Keith David are really great additions to the already varied personalities of Study Room F. Having lost 4 members of the cast since season 3, with Donald Glover’s absence being the most notable to the group dynamic, having a comparable mesh of personalities is a challenge. But I’m very satisfied with what we’ve got so far. 

There’s an entirely new aesthetic this season, as a new DP sits behind the camera. Longtime viewers will be elated to see a return to exterior sets as well, an important facet of the show’s universe that failed to show up as ratings and budget fell. 

The plots have been typical Community, convoluted, meta, and hilarious. The jokes are just as witty, and the runners (particularly Chang’s arc in ep 2) are killer. Today’s episode was great as well, and you can see that Dan Harmon and co are really taking advantage of the longer format that digital provides, taking their time on certain jokes that go from funny, to funnier, to absurd. 

MY PLEA TO WATCH

Though we’ve finally hit the first mark in the hallowed #sixseasonsandamovie, it’s important that if you like Community, you tune in! The fate of TV’s most creative show has been in the balance far too often in the past few years, and as always, it’s up to audience eyeballs and outreach to keep it on top.

You can watch here: https://screen.yahoo.com/

So what are you waiting for!

How do you feel about Community’s 6th season?

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AMATEUR THEORY – Comedy is Synonyms

THE THEORY

Alright, so comedy is more than just wordplay. In fact, my other amateur formulation of the hahas is that comedy is insight phrased in unexpected ways. But that’s a postulate for a different post, ya dig? Today I want to delve into something that I’ve seen come up time and time again.

Comedy is synonyms. 

A DANE COOK EPIPHANY

Don’t eviscerate me for saying that name. First of all, I don’t get why Dane Cook gets all kind of hate, or called a hack, or a failure. The man consistently sold out STADIUMS, people. If that’s not success, wuddafuq are YOU trying to do with your career? 

I bring ol’ Dane up because it was back in his heyday that I started to notice this phenomenon. Dane Cook would have bits where I would be spitting laughing. Falling out of my chair. But all he was doing was taking his punchline and rephrasing it. Sometimes just once. Sometimes in a couple ways. But he was taking the exact same idea and literally repeating it, and the laughs just kept getting bigger. 

MY SUSPICION OF REPETITION

I think it boils down to novelty. When you hear a punchline, it tends to hit because its unexpected. Now, comedians work INSANELY hard on the wording of their bits. They can spend hours and days retooling their language. So when they hit on that first punchline, those words are very deliberately chosen. 

But the human language is a funny fuckin’ thing. Some words sound funnier than others. I’ve heard of ‘Comedy Ks’ in particular, but letters like P and Q have a similar effect. Wikipedia even has a page of Inherently Funny Words

PUNCHLINE REWIND

So you’ve got your punchline, but maybe the insight works best without the funny words. That’d be ‘putting a hat on a hat’ as it were. So you say it once: 

…so I ate the green beans in the boat. 

but you want to emphasize, so you reiterate it:

…I was literally chewing on a bagful of verdant veggies

Then you carry on a bit, but want to circle back:

…which is why I was munching on those fuckin legumes on the pontoon

These punch lines are by no means perfect (or even good), but hopefully you’re starting to get the idea.

WRAP IT UP ALREADY

It turns out this whole thing was hard to formulate without a particular joke in mind, but it’s something to keep an eye out for. Next time you’re listening to standup or even just getting a laugh, try to see if this synonymous phenomenon is at play. For me, it’s all just a part of an ongoing effort to figure out WTF is going on in the strange world of comedy. 

What’s your amateur comedy theory?

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Momentous Momentum — Keep the System Running

A LONG BREAK

It’s currently the middle of my Spring Break, and besides a killer sunburn on my shoulders I’ve also acquired a bit of self-knowledge: that routine is a super important part of my creative process, and neglecting it 100%, even in the name of fun, is a good way to set myself a looong ways back. 

(it’s not for nothing that I’m writing this the day after St. Patrick’s Day)

So if you’re anything like me, I’ve compiled a couple tips to keep yourself writing, or at the very least working, just to keep things going smoothly. 

  1. Know your Weaknesses

And write them down. As you may have realized at this point in your authorial career, writing things down is a good way to help make them a bit more tangible, understandable. Maybe it’s just the time you spend dedicated solely to expressing the thought. So know your triggers! I often find myself jonesing for a ‘whole day off’ after a long work week, but I always know that I feel like crap by the end of those days. So I wrote that down — I try to shoot for ‘nonzero days’ where at least SOMETHING is accomplished, even if all I want to do is stay in bed and watch TV.

2. Know your Strengths

On the other side of that token, know what motivates you, too! I have a Google Doc that’s filled with things I know will pump me up, or at least will prime my system to get pumped up. (NERD ALERT: here’s one such song) People have different triggers, whether it’s going for a walk, listening to aforementioned awesome tunes, or even just watching a motivational video (LESS NERDY ALERT: my favorite is here).

3. Keep Track of your Progress

Put together a little log of things you’ve worked on for the day. Whether it’s a small section of a calendar, a post-it, or a journal you keep for yourself, keeping track of what you’ve been doing is a great way to keep moving. The habit alone of writing things down makes you feel a bit more guilty when trying to skip a day, and all the more accomplished when you do stuff. Plus having a backlog of your successes never hurts, especially when the motivation is running low.

4. Write Every Day

Possibly the most annoying and trite advice in the world, it nevertheless bears repeating. Even if you’re just blocking a couple of minutes out to, say, write a blog post, it goes a long way. I’ve reached my quota for today — have you?

JUST WRITE!

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